Naming Nature

Issue section: 

Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Norton, £12.99

Taxonomy, the classification of living things, does not sound like the most stimulating topic for a popular science book. The term conjures up rows of pickled specimens in musty museum cases, their identities reduced to two words in fading Latin. It is to her credit that Carol Kaesuk Yoon has written about the subject in a way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

The history of modern taxonomy begins with Carl Linnaeus. Born in 1707, Linnaeus was only 28 when he published his ground-breaking classification system. His genius was in recognising which organisms ought to be grouped together and which kept separate, but he also introduced a much needed simplicity into the classification process, giving us the two-word naming system we still use today.

In the 19th century, as capitalism spread its tentacles around the globe, this classification system became vitally important for naturalists trying to make sense of the flood of exotic specimens arriving as by-products of the growth of empire. Indeed, naval ships like HMS Beagle (whose naturalist was none other than Charles Darwin) had a specific mandate to bring back samples of the natural world.

The specimens Darwin sent back from his voyage, and his account of his travels, made him famous long before he published On the Origin of Species. But as Darwin was no taxonomist, others classified his specimens. Ironically, his theory of evolution by natural selection would soon challenge the very basis of taxonomy.

Darwin's theory explains why organisms can be placed into groups, families, etc, since this reflects their evolutionary relationship. But if life is continuously evolving, this questions the whole idea of fixed species, undermining the very basis of Linnaean classification. Yoon mentions evolutionary biologists who believe there is no such thing as fish, since these are so varied in their origins it makes no sense to see them as a discrete entity.

Yoon is deeply critical of such views. Citing the fact that human societies across the world organise living things into remarkably similar categories, she argues that the urge to classify is a deep-seated human instinct that is integral to our relationship with the natural world. For her, modern evolutionary theory is in danger of increasing our alienation from nature.

It is an interesting argument, but I think Yoon carries it too far in seeing it as a primary reason for the current destruction of the environment. Millions are aware of the seriousness of the threat to the natural world but are still powerless against the profit-driven madness of capitalism. Yoon seeks to empower people with ideas; this is a worthy aim but it will need to be combined with real power if we are to save the planet and its myriad life forms.